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Families that serve together grow together!

 

This is the first of our new series highlighting our volunteers who have invited their family members to join them in loving service with The Freedom to Choose Project (FTC).
Elana Christiansen, her husband, Kurt Christiansen and daughter, Natasha McClellan have been volunteering as a family for several years. Here is what they have to share about their experience…

 

Elana

How many years have you been volunteering with FTC?
I’ve been volunteering with FTC for 13 years.

How did you first hear about The Freedom to Choose Project and what prompted you to become involved?
I first heard about FTC as a student several years ago. There was an announcement made in class about the prison project and I was very moved by the impact the program seemed to be having. My life was certainly changing in such a positive way because of what I was learning and I was looking for my next volunteer opportunity. Volunteer service has been a part of my life for many years, and FTC seemed like an organization that was really making a difference that mattered. I wanted to be part of an organization like that.

What was your first volunteer experience like? What did you take away from that experience?
I was very nervous attending my first workshop. I didn’t really know anyone on the volunteer team, and I felt out of place at first. I remember the volunteers seemed so close, and I wondered how I would fit into it. I had also never been inside of a prison before and had some anxiety about that. For some reason, the security process seemed intimidating in my mind and I wasn’t sure what the women in prison would be like. All of my fears melted away within just a few minutes of being on the prison grounds. I felt so well-taken care of by FTC leadership and the volunteers welcomed me. The women in prison were excited to meet me and many of them had already completed several FTC workshops. We all had so much fun! I had a very fulfilling weekend, and I left the prison with my heart full.

How has this experience volunteering together affected your relationships with the family members you serve with?
I feel that volunteering for FTC has brought us closer as a family. Whether all three of us can attend a workshop together or just two of us, we get to spend such a sweet and meaningful weekend together laughing and being around other people we love. We have thoughtful conversations about the work FTC does and the participants that we serve. We’ve also cried and comforted each other because of some of the stories we’ve heard. And as a mom, I have the pleasure of watching my daughter grow beyond her comfort zone, take leadership on the volunteer team, and embody her loving in such a beautiful and mature way. And then invite her friends to be part of it as well. I couldn’t be prouder. Sharing this experience with my husband and daughter has been a highlight of my life.

 

Kurt

How many years have you been volunteering?
I’ve been volunteering with FTC for 12 years.

How did you first hear about The Freedom to Choose Project and what prompted you to become involved?
I heard about FTC while I was attending USM. Elana went to a workshop and persuaded me to go to the next one. She was good at the persuasion thing, and I’m glad she was.

What was your first volunteer experience like? What did you take away from that experience?
The first workshop I attended blew me away. As I listened and shared, an inner boundary between us and them dissolved. It was just us, and my heart opened even wider. It deepened my conviction that we are all One. I received as much as I gave that weekend.

How has this experience volunteering together affected your relationships with the family members you serve with?
FTC volunteering with my family has made the experiences even more special. Seeing my wife and daughter beaming with love and joy and purpose during those weekends melts my heart open. And I do believe these shared experiences have brought us closer together. It is often hard to describe these workshops to others who haven’t done it. Having my family understand first hand why FTC is so moving to me, makes it even more moving.

 

Natasha

How many years have you been volunteering?
I have participated in roughly 12 FTC workshops. I began volunteering in 2017.

How did you first hear about the Freedom to Choose Project and what prompted you to become involved?
I remember my parents returning from FTC volunteer weekends, beyond exhausted, but expressing how rewarding it was to be a part of. My mom couldn’t put into words what she loved so much about going, and I didn’t even know what happened on these weekends. Here’s what I knew: the program was making a difference in the lives of incarcerated individuals, and my parents felt it was important enough to give up their weekends to be involved. From the start, I felt called to join. We joked that I’d need to attend USM just to start volunteering! I waited for the day non-USM grads were permitted to join and jumped on the first opportunity. After my first trio (which was terrifying!), I understood why this loving work was so important, and why I had to be part of it.

What was your first volunteer experience like? What did you take away from that experience?
I feel emotional recalling my first volunteer experience. I was worried that I might say the wrong thing or wouldn’t know how to “properly” interact with the participants. It only took a few hours to realize none of those things mattered. No one could’ve prepared me for how full my heart felt at the end of that first weekend. I had entered Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) with the mission of helping the women there. At the end of the day, I left with a shocking realization—volunteering with The Freedom to Choose Project was just as much in service to myself, as it was in service to the women living in the prison. I was not there to “help” anyone. I was actually inside the prison to grow with these women who happen to be incarcerated. I was there to experience a level of humanity that I had never seen outside those walls.

How has this experience volunteering together affected your relationships with the family members you serve with?
When participating in selfless service, I believe the heart shows differently than when surrounded by the noise of the outside world. On FTC weekends, I see my mother’s commitment to the organization’s Mission and I admire her strong, enormous heart that never stops giving. When I see Kurt interact with participants, I’m reminded of his gentle, empathetic heart that is unlike anyone else’s I know. I love seeing these qualities in my parents. Going on FTC weekends is my favorite thing to do with them, and I’m beyond grateful to share these profound weekends with my family. When we go back to visiting the prisons, I plan to bring a few other relatives into the beautiful FTC family.

 

Donna Kall (FTC volunteer since 2004)